Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Made Speechless By The Sun

One coincidental benefit of moving to the northern Atlanta area last year was the relatively short distance needed to travel to the totality zone of the so-called Great American Eclipse of 2017. Some people planned their trip years in advance. I got in my car at 11 AM and drove 60 miles northeast to Helen, Georgia, known for its German Alpine design and atmosphere.

Hello Helen, Georgia! I parked temporarily to take this photo.

I had intended to leave a little earlier in the day. But life happens. Specifically, some wild animal was trapped in between our first floor and our basement ceiling and our cats were flipping out, so naturally I needed to investigate. Finally, I decided to let the cats sort it out and hit the road.


I had also intended to arrive in Helen in time for the start of the eclipse at around 1:00. However, I got hungry. We stopped for lunch just short of Helen. I allowed myself a, “That’s so cool!” moment when I peered at the Sun through my solar glasses in the parking lot before getting back in my car.

My daughter's cracker snack became a solar eclipse projector.

I had no specific destination in mind. Because the Sun was so high in the sky, any spot gave as good of a view as any other. But my 20-month-old daughter had taken a nap in the car and I wanted to give her space to run around. Thankfully, the town of Helen was crowded but not the park. I found a bench on the grass to set up my camera and take my initial telephoto shots. A fellow sky-watcher with a similar aged child commented how independent my Josephine is, entertaining herself with rocks. It’s a good thing, too, because I didn’t want to take my eyes off the sky for long.

Eventually Josephine noticed the narrow, shallow stream. For the next hour, nothing distracted her from the sheer joy of picking up river rocks and throwing them in the water. I relocated to the stream bank where I sat with my equipment, in disbelief of what I was seeing.

No photo I’ve taken or seen captured what I saw yesterday. It goes beyond imagery. The darkness, the senses, the emotions, all too complex to be summed up in a picture. I’ve never had an experience like that before. The total solar eclipse was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.

Solar eclipse in the lens flare.

In the minutes before totality, it dawned (or dusked) on me that the darkness was descending as if it were sunset. So much about the atmosphere, except the position of the Sun in the sky, felt like dusk. I even had the instinctual maternal thought of, “My 20-month-old is too young to play in a stream in the dark!”

As for my eclipse watching partner, the Sun didn’t hold her interest at all, and she kept throwing rocks into the water as if nothing else in the world was more important. I even tried to guide her head upward during totality, but she fought me and won, returning to her water play.

As the tiniest slivers of light shined, dimmed, and disappeared, cheers erupted all around me. I didn’t expect this. I was not in a crowded place. But in the distance in every direction, shouts and claps echoed. Complete strangers, completely different people, all united as one to admire the beauty of our Solar System and our place in it. I couldn’t help but cheer as well.

I have degrees in astrophysics. I am a space professional. In the minutes of solar eclipse totality, all intellectual thoughts left me. No word left my lips other than “Wow” and “Oh my God.” I don’t know when I started crying, but water filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. I didn’t expect to cry. And I didn’t let tears stop me from continuing to stare in awe as our closest planetary neighbor blocked out the light of our closest star.

I still can't believe I took this shot without a tripod.

As the light returned, I felt as though I had taken part in something much greater than myself. In reality, I took no part in it at all. The motions of the Earth, Sun, and Moon are all set in predictable clockwork, and we humans just observe. But by gathering together for this single purpose, we were a movement of another kind. I had a huge smile on my face.

Post-totality smile!

We stayed a little while longer. I put the solar glasses on my face and leaned back on the stream bank, not caring about capturing photos or missing totality. Josephine kept playing with rocks and water as if nothing else was happening. Eventually I dragged her away and set off for home.

It took much longer to get back than it did to get there. The park road was at such a standstill, I put my car in park, opened my car door, and watched the eclipse on and off for another half an hour more. Eclipse traffic combined with commuter traffic to create a mess on the road to home. But it was worth it. Seeing a total solar eclipse was worth every minute I spent sitting in traffic while my daughter screamed.

I experienced the eclipse many times over since then, processing my own photos and browsing others’ postings. What strikes me is how much this astronomical alignment brought us all together: space enthusiasts and regular people, friends and strangers alike. People who otherwise wouldn't care about celestial objects were staring in wonder. The solar eclipse brought rare unity to our country, centered around the Sun and the Moon. Thank you all for sharing in the astro love!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Mission Failure

There are many topics on my backlog to blog about: fun space things I’ve seen, new space things I’ve accomplished, my plans for the future. But what’s on my mind today is a matter of heart: mistakes, scapegoating, and team discord.

Bullying, which causes psychological harm to children everywhere, also affects adults in the workplace. I was victim to a workplace bully in graduate school who harmed my perception of myself, slowed my research progress, and exasperated my sense of impostor syndrome in the laboratory that took me years to overcome.

Preparing for my first ZeroG Corporation parabolic microgravity flight in grad school was a joyful, if exhausting experience. Finally, I would be able to float in free-fall – just as astronauts do – even if for only 30 seconds at a time. And I would be accomplishing real science as I soared, science I needed for my PhD. I wanted to have a blast, but I also wanted the experiment to be a success.

Which makes the outcome of that experience all the more frustrating.

Each team member was trained to handle a specific role during the flight. We had four team members and four roles. All four tasks needed to be accomplished during each microgravity-creating parabola in order to make the experiment a success. We had four experiment boxes to run the experiment four times, but only one laptop and camera setup.

My task was to press a button at the right time to release an impactor (a marble) to shoot at a very slow speed into a container of sand (fake Moon or Mars dirt/regolith simulant). But I couldn’t do my job alone; I relied on another team member with a better viewing angle to tell me when to fire the trigger. Our jobs depended on each other. We all needed to work together.

The first two tries were a flop. The trigger didn’t fire. Something must have been loose in the wiring. The third try worked! But my team member got too excited and told me to press the trigger too early. We weren’t having the best luck with scientific research.

At this point, we were losing team members. Two of the team had tapped out by then, victim of the Vomit Comet. We prepared for that eventuality, although admittedly not well. Each member of the team had spent a few minutes in the lab learning all the other team member’s tasks in case we needed to take over for a sick teammate. Had we thought a bit more ahead of time, we would have realized a few minutes of training would not cut it in a high-pressure quick-paced floating environment where it was hard enough to control limbs, let alone the experiment. But at the time, I had no choice. I took over the camera operation as well as my triggering duties and hoped for the best.

The best is not what happened. I don’t know how, but instead of recording 30 seconds of data on our forth and final experiment attempt, the video recorded a fraction of a second that looped for 30 seconds. I had never seen that happen before and had no idea the software even had that feature. I wasn’t sure if it was something I had done wrong, something the previous camera operator had done wrong, or just a very odd glitch in the camera software. But I was the one who pressed the camera buttons, so I accepted blame.

Up until this point, my workplace bully (the lab manager) had no legitimate complaints against me. She was envious of my educational success beyond her own, frustrated she had no authority over me, and infuriated that she couldn’t get under my skin, at least not yet. But the camera failure gave her the perfect opportunity and she jumped on it. Despite the fact that three of the four experiments failed for other reasons and the forth failure may or may not have my fault, I became the scapegoat for the whole mission failure.

With my own admission of possible guilt and no useful data to show for the ZeroG flight, she successfully turned half the lab against me, impressionable undergraduates who depended on her opinion for a job and who she also bullied to a lesser degree. The lab was a dysfunctional mess and a toxic work environment. I accepted increased isolation in the lab for my own mental health, trying my best to avoid contact with her.

My biggest failing was to internalize her lies about me. I began to see my labwork and my aptitude as a scientist in a more negative light, wondering if I really was a failure. This doubt hindered my success for years.

My bully petitioned hard to prevent me from flying during our next parabolic flight opportunity, this time with NASA in Houston. But with multiple flights over multiple days, we needed a larger team of flyers. I did fly for one of those parabolic flights. This time, it was me who got sick halfway through the flight and had to pass off my job tasks to another team member. And this time around, despite the multiple flights, our experiment failed for other reasons. I could not be blamed.

Despite the research failures, the team disharmony, and the eventual vomiting, I did have a blast during those parabolic flights. They remain one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. I would do it again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.

Floating around in microgravity - Nov. 2011

When I read about today’s Rocket Lab test flight failure because someone on the ground forgot to tick a box in ground control software, I feel for that person. The weight of failure on his/her shoulders must be very heavy right now. It is my deepest hope that whoever was responsible for the software mistake which doomed the Rocket Lab launch feels supported by his/her team, not isolated or ostracized.

Poor coworkers might scapegoat an employee who makes a mistake. But in reality, mistakes like that don’t happen in isolation. A unified, well-working team would work together during preparation to ensure easy mistakes don’t happen, but when they do, they would band together to accept fault as a group and seek solutions for the future. Mission success depends on the efforts of all, working together for a common purpose, holding each other up, working past failures, and celebrating successes. Mission success depends on everyone.